Thursday, January 27, 2022

The Last Picture Shows


These last entries are just that. Not a complete list by any means, they are, nonetheless, all I am going to review. I am eager to get on to other stuff…true notes from my warm island, and not simply reviews and commentary on other people’s work. I am at an age where one movie a night is about all I can manage, and it probably is no accident that as you read toward the bottom of these latest entries you will notice me getting increasingly critical and/or dissatisfied.

It could simply be that these last films are the lesser of the obvious “hot” choices for Award Season. Could be…but I submit it just possibly could be that I found myself getting grumpier and grumpier with the process itself. All that said, here goes with the final seven of a group totaling nearly two dozen feature motion pictures from 2021.

King Richard: Is available on HBO Max and is going to win a lot of awards from a whole bunch of diverse groups. Whether that plethora of hardware will include an Oscar or two is hard to say, but I can assure you of one thing, it is a very satisfying film. The King Richard of the title refers to Richard Williams, the father of Venus and Serena Williams, the great female duo of American tennis. Will Smith plays the title role and does so brilliantly. He is matched, stroke for stroke, by Aunjanue Ellis who plays Oracene “Brandi” Williams, the wife of King Richard and the mother of their exceptional children.

There is much more going on in this film than just tennis, but tennis is what brings about the film’s rousing conclusion and, as a result, evokes much of the movie’s emotional response…depending on who you are.

It is perhaps all too easy to forget that there was a time…not that long ago…where all white garb worn by tennis players was not the only pale item on the courts.

As a Jew growing up in East Los Angeles…and who attended USC in the mid-1950s…I have some appreciation for what it must have been like to come from Compton, California to play tennis on the Junior Circuit as a Black teenager. Let me pause to emphasize the modifier “some.”

The truth is I can only begin to imagine the feelings of any Black man or woman viewing the scenes in the earlier parts of the history of the Williams family which, I am convinced, must resonate well beyond what the well-crafted re-creation of tennis matches do near the movie’s end.

Hollywood sports’ movies date back to the silent days and Charlie Chaplin (The Champion, 1915). They include such great movies as Moneyball, Field of Dreams, Million Dollar Baby, Jerry Maguire, Raging Bull, Friday Night Lights, A League of Their Own, Rudy, The Natural, The Longest Yard, Bull Durham, Rocky, The Pride of the Yankees, The Champ, North Dallas Forty, The Great White Hope, Battle of the Sexes, The Blind Side, and Mark Robson’s Champion.

In the pantheon of Hollywood motion pictures with a sport at its center, King Richard, will rank close to the top of any list. It serves us all as a social document as well, not only because of its content, but for the simple fact that it exists at all. Take a moment; check out that list of great sports’ movies one more time and note that only The Great White Hope and The Blind Side feature a person of color. In a sporting world, dominated by great Black athletes, it says a great deal about we as a people…as well as the movies that reflect us…that the adding of King Richard, only brings to three the number of films on that list that have acknowledged the impact of Black men and women in the world of sport.

Lansky: Not really an award contender, but an interesting small movie with the always interesting Harvey Keitel in the title role playing Meyer Lansky, the one-time infamous head of America’s Murder, Inc. This purportedly true yarn answers some questions as to Lansky’s early days and, many more about the latter stages of his life. It is worth the ninety or so minutes of your time if you have one of those evenings where you want to watch something new, but do not want to get too emotionally entangled. I know…I know, this is damning with faint praise. The film is better than that, but not by much. Lansky is in theatres, or rentable on all the usual platforms.

The French Dispatch: There is a thing we used to call a “location joke,” meaning a statement that should get a laugh, but doesn’t, followed by the phrase, “I guess you had to be there.” That is sort of how it feels to attempt a review of a Wes Anderson movie. There is no question the guy is a genius, but you sort of know, going in, that not everyone is there yet…may never be there…or… maybe… simply does not want to go there.

This is a fabulous movie that is not for everyone…and…may not be for anyone…very much. It is special. It is funny. It is beautifully photographed, staged wonderfully, and features some of the best actors in all of cinema. What then could possibly go wrong? Apparently, just about everything: mixed reviews, mediocre box-office results, and a consensus among Anderson fans that The French Dispatch in no way lives up to its predecessors, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Moonrise Kingdom, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, and more.

I dunno. It is, for me, a stand-alone work, but one I would only recommend to cinema die-hards who do not mind quirkiness, arbitrary segues to animation, jokes that lay a little flat (unless you are in a room full of true Anderson afficionados), episodic storytelling, or other various and sundry elitist conceits.

Only now have I realized that my previous paragraph holds the key to your viewing enjoyment of this unique motion picture. Effort is required, for the task will not be an easy one:  A) find yourself a room full of true Anderson aficionados… ideally, and here is the hard part… aficionados who have yet to see The French DispatchB) round them up, C) rent the film from Amazon Prime or any number of similar platforms, D) screen the movie. Trust me, with this bunch it is not necessary to serve popcorn.

Coda:  There are simply too few feel-good movies out there. Fortunately for all of us there is Coda… a remake of a French film of a few years back about a teenage girl who loves to sing, has a real talent for it, and just happens to be the only member of her working-class family of four who is not deaf. It should be relatively easy to imagine the too-numerous-to-mention possibilities. Trust me, they are here in abundance; none have been missed, and they are delivered nicely, if not brilliantly, in this charming film that will make you feel warm and fuzzy all over. That is about all one can ask from this kind of motion picture and, that is about all I have to say about it. Other than this: you can see it on Apple TV with your Roku device.

Licorice Pizza: Director Paul Thomas Anderson has amassed a most interesting filmography over the last twenty years or so, and this latest effort of his is picking up all kinds of top awards and/or nominations from some very prestigious grantors. The list is impressive, even if the movie (currently streaming on Netflix and Amazon Prime) is not.

Don’t get me wrong… there is some good stuff here, mostly an interesting screen debut by Alana Haim as the 20-something heart throb of the teenage lead in this coming-of-age saga. There are also some weird, but interesting, cameos by Sean Penn and Bradley Cooper, to name the top two of many who lend themselves to this venture.

The San Fernando Valley in the 1970s is captured in all its area code 818ness, and effective use is made of the music of that period on the film’s soundtrack… there are even a few attempts at semi-serious social commentary. Still, the bottom line is inescapable: the movie is flabby, bloated and directorially undisciplined.

William Faulkner reportedly once said, “In writing you must first kill all your darlings.” It was a commentary on how important it is for one to be ruthless with one’s art. It applies to filmmaking every bit as much as it does to writing. Director Anderson failed to do that basic… and most important thing. Too bad.

The Hand of God: This, too, is a coming-of-age story and it has Licorice Pizza beat…hands down.

Well, almost. Maybe because it is Italian and set in Naples, the hometown of its filmmaker, Paolo Sorrentino. That could help explain why it is a lot more charming. The movie begins and, right away, you feel that you are in the hands of a witty, and wonderful filmmaker. The picture is a ninety-minute delight. Unfortunately, the film goes on for more than two hours. Again, too bad.

Let me clarify. Unlike the flick by Paul Thomas Anderson, this movie’s interior is not bloated, the film simply continues beyond its perfect ending with all that superficial excess clumped into the last half hour. Walk out on this movie after the teen lead is given a great piece of advice immediately following his first sexual experience, and you will have seen one of the better film gems of this year. Stay until the end credits and you will not only have wasted a half hour of your valuable time, but you will also wind up disappointed in a movie you once really liked…for an hour and a half. Judge for yourself on Netflix.

The Tender Bar: Another coming of age drama that really does not belong in this list of potential award winners. It was brought to my attention because of the appearance of Ben Affleck and the celebrity of the director, George Clooney. That is a great deal of fire power for such a minor work, but it does evoke an occasional tear with little doubt that it is a sweet story based on an autobiographical yarn by NY Times Pulitzer Prize winner, JR Moehringer.

Clooney is not yet in the league of Paul Thomas Anderson or Paolo Sorrentino as a director (but on the flip side, I am betting neither Anderson nor Sorrentino can act as well as Mr. Clooney). To give him his due, director Clooney aims for San Diego and gets there, but he does so without flare and without the necessary support this film so desperately needs. That “need” is in the form of two kids…the nine-year-old youth who learns what it is to be a man from the point of view of his bar owning uncle (Affleck) and the latter-day teenager that boy becomes when it is time to go to college and, ultimately, to the NY Times.

The two young actors who play these parts must carry the emotional weight of the movie. It is okay if they lack acting “technique”… or even experience… just so long as they have that ephemeral something that connects when the camera turns on.

Star power is difficult to define, but you sure know it when you see it. Not every film requires it. But in a story such as this, you either find that kid (in this case kids) or you put everything else at risk. It is one of those things you wait for…if you are serious about your art, (and, if of all people, George Clooney isn’t, then why is he doing this? One would assume that he could not possibly need the money).

Unless there are mouths to feed, you wait… and refuse to make the movie until you find what you need. Trust me, there is no measuring the import of failing to cast one’s project properly. Think about it: how many bad versions of Hamlet have you seen in your life? I can assure you, there is nothing wrong with the writing.

Casting makes the movie C’mon, C’mon rise above the pack, and it could not be more essential to Branagh’s Belfast. It is, unhappily for all concerned, that very special thing that Clooney’s movie lacks. If you insist, you can see this on Netflix.

Moving on. There is a lot of talk about many other films I did not take the time to review that you may well want to discover for yourselves: Flee, winner of the Sundance Grand Jury Prize (Amazon Prime), A Hero, (Amazon Prime) Cannes Film Festival Grand Prix Winner, The Last Duel (HBO MAX) winner National Board of Review, Parallel Mothers (Amazon Prime, Vudu, YouTube) winner Venice Film Festival in best actress category (Penelope Cruz), Passing (Netflix), Red Rocket (Vudu) top film of National Board of Review and others, Respect (Amazon Prime), Summer of Soul (Hulu) winner Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize, Mass (Apple iTunes, YouTube and others) multiple national and international awards and nominations, Titane (Amazon Prime) the Palme d’Or winner at Cannes, plus National Board of Review top foreign language film. It is on Amazon Prime.

That is it for 2021. Overall, I think, an improvement (however small) over 2020. In the belief that 2022 will be even better, and considering the general inflationary spiral, I suggest that you begin stocking up on popcorn now.


Barney Rosenzweig

No comments: